High Infidelity [OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS]

This review of Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared in the February 13, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. I’m not positive that the second image I’ve used to represent Sokurov’s Oriental Elegy actually comes from that video and not from another Sokurov work, but it evokes my memory of that video so well that I hope I can be granted poetic license for this. – J.R.

Other Voices, Other Rooms

0 (worthless)

Directed by David Rocksavage

Written by Sara Flanigan and Rocksavage

With Lothaire Bluteau, Anna Thomson, David Speck, April Turner, and Frank Taylor.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

I cannot tell a lie: my first exposure to two great tragic novels, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), was the dreadful Hollywood adaptations released during my teens, both of which had happy endings. As silly as these movies were — Vincent J. Donehue’s Lonelyhearts (1958) and Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959) — they piqued my interest in the original novels, and I discovered, among many other things, the blatant inadequacy of the movie versions.

The same thing could happen to a teenager attending the dreadful film adaptation of Truman Capote’s first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) — not a novel of the same caliber as West’s and Faulkner’s, though still a work of real distinction, from his best period — but the odds are slim.… Read more »

McCarthy’s Law: Review of IDEAS AND THE NOVEL

This review, from the February 4, 1981 issue of The Soho News, is most likely harsher than it needed to be. Since Mary McCarthy’s death, I’ve been moved to reformulate some of my positions about her after reading the wonderful book Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1995) edited by Carol Brightman, which reveals a side of McCarthy that seems quite contrary to her much better-known bitchiness as a critic. It proves to me that unforeseen and unforeseeable sides of some people tend to come out only in specific relationships with certain other people, and the loving generosity of McCarthy’s letters to Arendt are a particular striking example of this. —J.R.

McCarthy’s Law

Ideas and the Novel
By Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95

Despite her wicked way with some words and ideas, Mary McCarthy has never exactly thrilled me with her aesthetics. With a taste stuck so comfortably, nostalgically, even trivially in the prosaic 19th century that even the avant-garde that she values often seems furnished with fog and brass doorknobs à la Doyle, Verne, or Poe, her acute critical intelligence usually whiles away its time polishing statues and suits of armor — rather like the New York Times Book Review — whenever she turns to the Novel.… Read more »

Hallelujah, I’m A Bum!

 

HallelujahImaBum

This eccentric and soulful anarcho-leftist fantasy is probably the most underrated of all Depression-era musicals. Directed by Lewis Milestone in 1933 from a script by Ben Hecht and S.N. Behrman, with a score by Rodgers and Hart that features rhyming couplets, the film stars Al Jolson as a Central Park hobo who actually likes being homeless — until he falls in love with an amnesia victim (Madge Evans) who’s a former mistress of the mayor (Frank Morgan) and has to get a job to support her. The overall conception owes something to Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights, but the editing and mise en scene are genuinely inspired and inventive. (The parodic Eisensteinian montage cut to the syllables of “America” must be seen to be believed, and a tracking shot past muttering customers in a spacious bank is equally brilliant and subversive.) Harry Langdon is memorable as a Trotskyite, and Richard Day’s art deco sets are striking. 82 min. 2019 postscript: According to the late Pierre Rissient, much of this film’s brilliance can be credited to the preproduction work on it done by Harry d’Arrast. (JR)

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Slacker

For the Chicago Reader (August 23, 1991). Fortunately, I’ve been to Austin quite a few times since I wrote this review. — J.R.

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slackerconspiracynerdprettygirlbookstoregood

Richard Linklater’s delightfully different and immensely enjoyable first feature takes us on a 24-hour tour of the flaky dropout culture of Austin, Texas; it doesn’t have a continuous plot, but it’s brimming with weird characters and wonderful talk (all of it scripted by Linklater, though it often seems improvised). The structure of dovetailing dialogues calls to mind an extremely laid-back variation on The Phantom of Liberty or Playtime. “Every thought you have fractions off and becomes its own reality,” remarks Linklater himself to a poker faced cabdriver in the first (and in some ways funniest) scene, and the remainder of the movie amply illustrates this notion with its diverse paranoid conspiracy and assassination theorists, serial-killer buffs, musicians, cultists, college students, pontificators, petty criminals, street people, and layabouts (around 90 in all). Even if the movie goes nowhere in terms of narrative and winds up with a somewhat arch conclusion, the highly evocative scenes give an often hilarious sense of the surviving dregs of 60s culture and a superbly localized sense of community. I’ve never been to Austin, but this movie certainly makes me want to pay a visit (1990).… Read more »

In The Cut

From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 2003). — J.R.

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One can easily pick apart this Jane Campion adaptation of a thriller by Susanna Moore: it isn’t very satisfying as a thriller, and certain details — like the heroine assigning Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to her inner-city high school students — come across as just plain silly. But I still consider this the best (which also means the sexiest) Campion feature since The Piano, featuring Meg Ryan’s finest performance to date and an impressive one by Mark Ruffalo. Scripted by Moore and Campion, it takes on the unfashionable question of what sex means for a single woman drifting into middle age, and what it says on the subject veers from the obvious to the novel. Campion is better with moods than with plot, and her capable handling of some actors (including Jennifer Jason Leigh and an uncredited Kevin Bacon) ameliorates the hyperbolic characters they’re asked to play. R, 118 min. (JR)

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Gentile Persuasion [SCHINDLER'S LIST]

From the Chicago Reader (December 17, 1993), also reprinted in my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

SCHINDLER’S LIST

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Steven Zaillian

With Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagalle, and Embeth Davidtz.

The ideological structures of Spielberg’s films “hail” the spectator into a world of the obvious that affirms the viewer’s presence (even while dissolving it), affirms that what the viewer has always believed or hoped is (obviously) right and accessible, and assures the viewer excitement and comfort in the process. The films offer nothing new beyond their spectacle, nothing the viewer does not already want, does not immediately accept. That is their conservative power, and it has spread throughout the cinema of the 80s. — Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (1988)

Confessions are in order. From Duel to Jurassic Park, there are few Steven Spielberg movies I admire, and none I fully respect — though I respond to a good many of them as obediently as any well-oiled automaton. My first look at Close Encounters of the Third Kind actually brought tears to my eyes. I can’t say that on reflection I felt much pride in this response, though the experience of becoming a boy again in relation to the imagined parental benevolence of the cosmos — which also happens with Ray Bradbury’s best early tales about Mars — may be morally preferable to feeding on the murderous xenophobia of Star Wars, released the same year (1977); at worst one winds up feeling silly rather than dirty afterward.… Read more »

Holy Smoke

From the Chicago Reader (January 25, 2000). — J.R.

 HS

Holy-Smoke

Jane Campion still has a remarkable eye for framing and imagining, but on the sad evidence of this scrambled free-for-all (1999), written with her sister Anna Campion, she’s taken leave of about half her senses. The setup is promising: a young Australian woman (Kate Winslet) becomes smitten with an Indian guru, and her bourgeois family, after luring her back home with a lie that her father is dying, hires an American specialist (Harvey Keitel) to deprogram her in the outback. Naturally the two of them get involved, and naturally this becomes a monumental battle of wills and sexes. As in Campion’s The Piano there’s a lot of wildness qualifying as a kind of politically correct porn, decked out on this occasion with dazzling visual effects that begin with the title written in smoke. But all sorts of questions go unanswered, and there’s little of the density found in Campion’s early work; this is mainly smoke, not fire. R, 114 min. (JR)

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O’Neill’s Next-to-Last Testament: THE ICEMAN COMETH

Published by the web site Fandor on January 4, 2011. — J.R.

It’s widely and justly believed that the two greatest plays of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) were both written near the tail end of his career — The Iceman Cometh, completed in 1939 and first staged in 1946, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, completed in 1941 and produced only posthumously, in 1956. What’s less widely known is that the action of both plays unfolds during the same summer, 1912, when O’Neill was 24, after having attempted to commit suicide the previous spring. As his biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb note in their 2000 O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo (New York: Applause), “the plays follow almost literally the chronology of O’Neill’s youthful years, with Iceman (written first) set in ‘summer 1912’ and Long Day’s Journey (which can be regarded as its sequel) set on ‘a day in August, 1912’.”

Both late masterpieces are obsessive distillations of a lifetime of brooding, with the three-hour 1962 film version of Long Day’s Journey into Night directed by Sidney Lumet and the four-hour 1973 film version of The Iceman Cometh directed by John Frankenheimer having served, for many filmgoers, as the versions of reference.… Read more »

Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1997). — J.R.

austin-powers-international-man-of-mystery-13891

After 30 years of cryogenic preservation, the title hero (a spin-off of James Bond and his clones) and his archenemy Dr. Evil — both played by writer and coproducer Mike Myers (Wayne’s World) — emerge in the present to match wits all over again. What’s really fun about this silly but spirited comedy isn’t just the ribbing of swinging London fashion and social attitudes but the use of the compulsive zooms and split-screen mosaics of commercial movies of the 60s (some of the funniest gags derive from camera placement). There’s a bit of fudging when it comes to the romantic interest: sidekick Elizabeth Hurley initially blanches at Austin Powers’s advances but succumbs as soon as he treats her to a night on the town in Las Vegas, complete with champagne and Burt Bacharach. But 60s (and 50s) icons like Robert Wagner and Michael York (playing someone called Basil Exposition) make this exercise in historical relativity even funnier. Jay Roach directed with just the right amount of period tackiness. With Mimi Rogers, Seth Green, and Fabiana Udenio (as Alotta Fagina). (JR)

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Rosenbaum’s List [The Best Films of 1993]

From the Chicago Reader (January 7, 1994). — J.R. One of the funnier remarks in Variety late last year came from a Universal Pictures executive who noted that because of the special nature of Schindler’s List his company wasn’t really promoting the picture, but simply informing people it was out. I’d wager that if the other movies on my ten-best list had been given the same amount of “nonpromotion” — one of those modest multimillion-dollar campaigns — you would have heard nearly as much about them. As it happens, only about half the items on my list have had — or are having — a normal commercial run in Chicago. Still, Bitter Moon, which has so far had only one fleeting engagement here (in the fall, at the Polish film festival), is expected to have a belated U.S. release early this year, and Silverlake Life: The View From Here was aired nationally on PBS. The limited number of Hollywood films on my list and the prominence of Chinese language ones demands some comment. It used to be a truism that American cinema excelled in unpretentious entertainment but faltered when it came to art movies, while the standard line about foreign films — meaning the foreign films Americans saw — tended toward the reverse.… Read more »

Love Films: A Cassavetes Retrospective

From the Chicago Reader (September 20, 1991); reprinted in Placing Movies. — J.R.

I have noticed that people who were loved or felt they were loved seemed to lead fuller, happier lives. All of my own work in theater and film has been concerned with varying themes of this love.

A Woman of Mystery has to do with an unexplored segment of our society, referred to as the homeless, bag ladies, winos, bums — labels that are much easier for the public to deal with than the individual.

It has been difficult to explore this particular woman of mystery. She is not only homeless (if homeless means without the comfort of love) but she is nameless, without the practical application of social security, or any other identity. Alone, she clings to her baggages on the street.

Our heroine enters into a series of encounters that challenge her isolation, her inability to communicate. A young woman passerby seems to feel that this woman with the suitcases is the reincarnation of her dead mother. An emotional dismissal of the younger woman causes the woman’s memory to play tricks on her. A young man seems to touch unexplained dependency in her and a clerk at a travel bureau gets dangerously close to exchanging love.Read more »

On Andrea Gronvall

Here’s the substance of two emails I recently sent to an obit writer at the Tribune:

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Once Upon a Time, Cinema

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1993). — J.R.

once-upon-a-time-cinema

An entertaining if somewhat uneven departure by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, this 1992 film can be regarded in part as a kind of peace offering to the Iranian government after the banning of his two previous features. A fantasy about the birth of Iranian cinema, full of whimsical special effects and wacky magical-realism conceits, it’s centered on an early cinematographer (Mehdi Hashemi) — modeled loosely and rather awkwardly on Chaplin’s tramp figure — who introduces movies to the Persian court, gradually winning over the shah (Ezatollah Entezami) after the ruler falls for an actress (Fatemeh Motamed Aria, literally dropping from the screen into the palace). Quirkily inventive and unpredictable, the film concludes with a sentimental anthology of clips celebrating the history of Iranian cinema that calls to mind Oscar night; before this, much more interesting use is made of a silent film identified by Makhmalbaf as the first Iranian movie, Ebrahim Khan’s Hajagha, the Film Actor. In Farsi with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)

ONCE UPON A TIME CINEMA by Mohsen MakhmalbafRead more »

Eurofilm [Kieslowski's BLUE]

From the Chicago Reader (February 11, 1994). — J.R.

*** BLUE

(A must-see)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz

With Juliette Binoche, Benoit Regent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Very, Helene Vincent, Emmanuelle Riva, and Philippe Volter.

Indisputably the work of a master, to a much greater degree than anything else around at the moment, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s first feature without reference to his native Poland is sufficiently contemporary and allegorical to take the future of Europe, and a “unified” Europe at that, as one of its themes. Palpably concerned with loss and regeneration, suffering and transcendence, Blue calls to mind some of the better late works of Ingmar Bergman in its powerful sense of dramatic concentration; it doesn’t have quite the undertow of neurosis that presumably made those films so exemplary for Woody Allen, but it does have a much bolder grasp of the movements and vagaries of consciousness.

In the opening moments of Blue the leading character, Julie (Juliette Binoche), loses both her husband, a famous French composer, and her five-year-old daughter in a car crash; the remainder of the film charts her mental and spiritual recovery. The film’s remarkable economy is already apparent in the opening shot — a close-up of the spinning right front wheel of the car, seen from behind, as it speeds down a highway.… Read more »

Low Budget, Real Life [MY LIFE'S IN TURNAROUND]

From the Chicago Reader (September 2, 1994). — J.R.

** MY LIFE’S IN TURNAROUND

(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Eric Schaeffer and Donal Lardner Ward

With Schaeffer, Ward, Lisa Gerstein, Dana Wheeler Nicholson, Debra Clein, Sheila Jaffe, John Sayles, Martha Plimpton, Phoebe Cates, and Casey Siemaszko.

As a member of the New York film festival’s selection committee, I’ve seen or sampled close to 150 films (shorts and features) this summer that haven’t yet opened in the United States, about a quarter of them American. And I’ve come to a few rough conclusions about the differences between new American movies and those recently made elsewhere, and had a few thoughts about trends in American studio and independent pictures. All of them are fairly depressing.

One major difference between foreign and American fiction features stands out: those made in other countries tend to be about how people live today, and those made here tend to be anything but. The few American movies that spring to mind as exceptions are already being regarded within the business as uncommercial — difficult, marginal works earmarked for “special” audiences.

This state of affairs is partly the result of new definitions of “universality” developed by the studios over the past several years, which generally suppose that the ideal movie viewer has the taste and sensibility of a ten-year-old boy: think of the well-received Speed, Forrest Gump, and True Lies, for instance, none of which betrays a view of the adult world any more developed than those in The Lion King and The Mask.… Read more »